The Navigating the Nutrition Maze series is an ongoing exploration of nutrition-related issues to help navigate the turns, dead ends, and intricate passages to healthy eating.
BPA is an abbreviation for an industrial chemical (bisphenol A) that is used to make certain plastics and resins. Several years ago the public was virtually unaware of the product’s existence, but in recent years it has entered the public spotlight as concerns regarding its safety have surfaced.
There are several key players in the debate over the safety of BPA, including the American Chemistry Council (an association that represents plastics manufacturers) and the National Toxicology Program (which is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). The American Chemistry Council contends that there is no human health risk associated with BPA. The National Toxicology Program disagrees, stating that there is “some concern” regarding the possible health effects of BPA.
What is BPA and where is it found?
BPA is a known endocrine-disrupting chemical. This means it has the potential to mess with hormone function in the body. The possible implications of this range from changes in obesity risk to alterations in sexual development in children. BPA is prevalent in our environment because BPA-containing plastics are clear and tough, making them useful in the production of scores of items including food and drink packaging (e.g., food cans, bottle tops, polycarbonate plastic food containers), impact-resistant safety equipment, toys, cash register receipts, and medical devices.
What’s the risk?
The risks associated with BPA exposure are not entirely clear. The evidence on the health effects varies across studies, which makes it difficult to draw sound conclusions. The preponderance of the evidence indicates it may cause increased risk of obesity, certain cancers, and abnormal human development. The National Toxicology Program’s conclusions regarding the risks to human development and reproduction can be seen below.
Given a 2003-2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found detectable levels of BPA in 93% of the urine samples they took from 2,517 individuals age 6 and over, any risks should be taken seriously because they are likely to impact the majority of Americans.
How to avoid BPA
Exposure to BPA can occur through air and dust, but it predominately occurs through the consumption of food and beverages that are laced with it. Ways to reduce exposure to BPA include:
- Avoid microwaving foods in polycarbonate plastic food containers. (Washing these plastics in the dishwasher with harsh detergents may also increase BPA leaching).
- Use fewer canned foods.
- Choose glass, porcelain, or stainless steel containers for food and liquid storage. (Some plastics are BPA free, but keep in mind that those marked with recycle codes 3 or 7 may be made with BPA. Also note that warm foods and beverages may leach more BPA from plastics than cold products.)
- Use baby bottles that are BPA free.
- Handle cash register receipts as little as possible.
While what is known about BPA is inadequate, I believe the evidence is sufficient to warrant efforts to avoid exposure to it. It’s certainly an issue about which to stay tuned. Safety recommendations and food packaging guidelines will likely change in the coming years as additional research is conducted. For further reading, check out my sources for this post: Mayo Clinic and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Have you heard a lot about BPA? What steps do you take to reduce exposure to it?